Western Venezuela Rocked by Rolling Blackouts

Low water levels at hydroelectric dams, “terrorist sabotage” and damaged infrastructure have been blamed for the power cuts.

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A Venezuelan student struggles to study during the blackouts. (El Nacional)
A Venezuelan student struggles to study during the blackouts. (El Nacional)
By Paul Dobson
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Mérida, May 11, 2020 (venezuelanalysis.com) – A power outage plunged most of Venezuela’s western states into darkness on Sunday.

As families enjoyed a relaxation of the COVID-19 lockdown for Mother’s Day, the blackout reportedly hit the states of Merida, Tachira, Zulia, Falcon, Lara, Barinas, Trujillo, Portuguesa and Carabobo, where it varied between five and 24 hours.

The incident was the latest in a wave of power cuts sweeping these states, and follows more extensive blackouts earlier this month, when up to 17 regions -- including the capital Caracas -- were left without electricity on May 2 and 5.

The deteriorating electrical situation, which has seen blackouts of up to 18 hours a day at times in some states, is causing increasing discontent in the affected population.

Last week, residents of La Grita and El Vigia in Tachira and Merida States, respectively, attempted to torch local mayor’s offices, while a youth died while protesting in Merida City last Monday.

Others have taken to social media to vent their anger, with one Twitter user explaining that “The electrical situation in Merida is awful. We are left with electricity for three hours, maximum five. We spend the remaining 12, 14 and up to 18 hours [a day] in two electricity-less blocks.

The National Electrical Corporation (CORPOELEC) has applied electrical rationing to most western regions for over two months, and the measure was also unveiled in northern Caracas on Saturday. While the schedules vary according to each region, they often include six hours on - six hours off, with vital electrical circuits exempt, such as the ones where hospitals are located.

However, Merida-based human rights organisation, Promedehum, has denounced that the announced schedule is not being met, and that unpredictable outages “not only leave people in the dark but also confused about which hours of the day or night they will have electricity.”

In a recent report, the organisation also claimed that blackouts in the Andean state increased 190 percent in April, with the worst-hit sectors spending 223 hours in the dark.

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Length of the power cuts in one middle-class sector of Merida State according to Promedehum, where the yellow lines represent time spend without power on any certain day in March, and the red lines in April. (@Promedehum / Twitter)
Length of the power cuts in one middle-class sector of Merida State according to Promedehum, where the yellow lines represent time spend without power on any certain day in March, and the red lines in April. (@Promedehum / Twitter)

To explain the worsened service, CORPOELEC officials have pointed to a range of factors, including low-level corruption and inefficiency, as well as overgrown vegetation.

Reported low water levels at the San Agatón and Fabricio Ojeda hydroelectric plants in Tachira and Merida States, which generate 150 megawatts (MW) and 217 MW, respectively, have also contributed.

According to CORPOELEC, much electrical infrastructure also continues to require maintenance following the March, April and July 2019 national blackouts.

Since April 10, broken turbines have reduced capacity at Merida’s Don Luis Zambrano thermoelectric plant from 180 MW to 127, while generation was halted entirely for the same reason at the TermoBarrancas plant in Barinas State (110 MW) on Thursday.

On Sunday, excess electrical charge also caused a fire at the San Diego power plant in Carabobo State, leaving 70 percent of the state in the dark.

Officials were able to report, however, that after over six months of delay, the TermoZulia plant (340 MW) in Zulia State was brought online on Sunday, offering hope to the residents of the one of the country’s worst-hit states, where temperatures often exceed 35 degrees centigrade.

In addition to CORPOELEC’s information, government officials have frequently claimed acts of “terrorist sabotage” against electrical infrastructure. Vice President Delcy Rodriguez hinted that the May 5 outage in a key transmission line was connected to a foiled paramilitary coup attempt.

As the country enters its ninth week of national COVID-19 lockdown, many residents have complained that blackouts damage home appliances and food reserves, affect other services such as Internet and phone access, as well as restrict what commerce is permitted.

Teachers have also pointed out that power outages make remote schooling programs unfeasible, and stay-at-home online work impossible. Internet monitoring firm Netblocks reported that over 60 percent of the country’s cable and mobile internet usage was affected by the May 5 blackout.

Speaking Sunday, President Maduro urged greater “discipline and cohesion” to the lockdown, as many urban areas see a gradual de facto return to normal life. Despite extending the lockdown, the government unveiled an online questionnaire concerning possible lockdown exit strategies.

At the time of writing, Venezuela has 422 identified COVID-19 cases, 205 recovered patients and 10 deaths. 26 additional cases were reported over the weekend, the majority of which were “imported” from Colombia and Brazil. An estimated 25,000 immigrants have returned to the country since the lockdown began.

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